Winner of the 2015 Berlinale’s Best First Feature Award, first-time director Gabriel Ripstein’s 600 Miles aptly avoids stereotypes and gimmicks in steering clear of the path forged by previous south-of-the-border American thrillers. The expectations for those films are clear, put simply, to provide a high-octane thrill-ride. 600 Miles pushes back against this notion in search of something more sober, authentic and ultimately affecting. With a developed protagonist and a visual style that refuses to conform to convention, Ripstein reconfigures our relationship to the violence depicted on-screen.
We are first introduced to the world of Arnulfo (Kristyan Ferrer), the film’s protagonist, as his white-trash partner Carson (Harrison Thomas) trawls a gun store for goods. These purchases, among others, are what the pair will smuggle across the border to Mexico. We peer over stocked shelves from in the corner as Carson navigates the aisles between them and attempts, largely successfully, to keep his cool. However, as the film’s opening progresses and the pair’s stockpile of arms grow, it becomes clear that they aren’t as conspicuous as they think. American ATF agent Hank Harris (Tim Roth) has been tailing them, tracking a slow pursuit in search of the opportune moment at which to arrest the two. When that moment arrives, Harris makes a crucial error. As Carson flees the scene, Arnulfo is left with the dangerous predicament of a bloodied and beaten-up ATF agent. Arnulfo bundles Harris up, puts him in the back of the SUV, and sets off to seek help.
Immediately, the film distinguishes itself from similar fare by minimising its scope. Much of the film revolves around the uneasy dynamic of the rookie gun-runner holding captive a government agent who sought to arrest him. The story is small and self-contained: no guns blazing, no flashy explosions. Instead: a long, 600-mile drive punctuated occasionally by stilted, hesitant conversation between the two. Arnulfo is attempting to keep his head above water and stay in control, and Roth as Harris is attempting to extricate himself from a particularly sticky situation by befriending his captor. The film is bound up in this constantly shifting relationship between its two central characters, which yields a more intriguing viewing experience than Michael Bay-inspired firearm theatrics. At times, their conversations outlast the insight into their characters, and subsequently the film lulls a little around the middle-mark. However, it seems a worthy compromise to witness the power being exchanged between the two characters slowly.
Ripstein subverts another stereotype in his film by fleshing out the character of Arnulfo. Rather than dooming him to a two-dimensional presence, he emerges nuanced and intriguing. Arnulfo is no Michael Corleone: he acts based on the instinct for self-preservation, the desire to revert back to a life free of the conflict. While it might be the same motivation for another character in his place, Ripstein makes clear the difference: Arnulfo is neither an antagonist nor a hero. Ferrer’s performance reveals him as predominantly naïve and out of his depth, and this reversal of expectations of traditional masculinity is refreshing. His macho façade is rapidly identified as just that – a façade. One scene has Arnulfo sitting at a kitchen table sobbing as his uncle does the dishes. It’s a bleak familial tableau that contrasts starkly with luxurious images of the ‘gangster life’. The tension is ratcheted up by the long, still, unyielding shot. Arnulfo sobs, his uncle washes the dishes. The camera refuses to move, we are left with no choice but to face the scene in its entirety.
Not only in the aforementioned scene but also in many others, Ripstein is preoccupied with stretching them to the limits of their emotional potential. Favouring long takes, minimalistic dialogue and primarily incidental lighting, he redirects the viewer to the focal point within the frame. It’s a pared back approach, matched by music being almost entirely absent from the film. He gives the viewer no room to escape the scene’s true implication, with no flashy distractions to compromise our concentration. This holds especially true for his representation of on-screen violence. Here, the implications of plot extend beyond the American-Mexican border context to a greater, potential indictment of how we as moviegoers might consume media depicting violence with glamour with excitement, Ripstein evoking the work of Michael Haneke. In one instance, cinematographer Alain Marcoen (favourite of the Dardenne brothers) opts for long, wide framing that confines the violence to one side of the frame, with a still camera that forces us to confront it rather than to revel in the fast-paced exhilaration of a shoot-out. However, the shot partially obscures the shots through internal framing, and by depriving us of the typical, full view we’re used to, we’re forced to wonder why we’ve come to expect such a glamourised packaging of on-screen violence. The restrained editing from Santiago Pérez, Rocha Léon, and Ripstein himself, also deserves credit here.
With this restraint, 600 Miles proves to be a powerful debut feature for director Gabriel Ripstein. It passes no judgment in its narrative, but does us the service of transforming us into active consumers of film.